Tending to detach myself from difficult situations, it has taken a while for me to accept my cancer diagnosis. I still have yet to come to terms with the fact that I turned thirty, and that was almost two years ago.
The nonchalant way the physicians assistant spoke of the tumor confused me. She reported the news to the room in the ER, which included two aunts who were nurses, a stepmom who, minutes before was ready to kill the PA using nothing but a glare if she didn’t order a scan of my abdomen, and myself, who then looked more a like bloated raft of vegetable matter than my real self.
“I got the scan back, and…you’re very constipated,” the PA said and paused as if we were all witnessing a breakthrough in science. “Oh, aaand youhaveatencentimetermassonyouradrenalgland.”
She said it as if it were merely an unsightly skin tag that I could buy the As Seen on TV kit and remove up to eighty of them at my leisure, and not like it was a tumor so big that it was most definitely cancer and that that type of cancer is extremely rare and seen in about three-hundred people per year and not many of those people will live past five years.
No, she said it like it were no big whoop. And my shriveled brain at the time which, much like a toddler or a house pet that responds mainly to tone of voice, believed her.
So for a while I figured that the mass really was no big deal. It would be removed, my adrenal glands would stop pumping out the cortisol steroid that was causing Cushing’s Syndrome and destroying me, and I would be on the fast track to recovery.
I was scheduled for surgery two weeks later. Two weeks seemed like two years at the time as I rapidly ballooned into something resembling Oprah Winfrey “the fat years” and my brain was shrinking into the same size as Kanye West’s.
Two weeks, however, wasn’t long enough for me to really get to know the tumor in any sort of intimate way. It wasn’t enough time for me to consider cooking premium quality meth to help support my family if I were to pass. It seemed more like some distant relative I met once at a funeral whose face I can’t recall when my mom mentions they eloped or came down with the gout.
The day for surgery finally came. One minute I was making fun of my dad, the next I was awake with a pain in my arm like I’d just received a thousand Charlie Horses. This didn’t make sense as the surgical site was nowhere near my arm and I couldn’t help but suspect the nurses and doctors and probably a janitor (basically the cast of Scrubs) took advantage of my unconscious state and used my arm for an impromptu punching contest.
The nurses wheeled me into my room in the ICU, telling me I did great though I couldn’t recall doing anything.
They asked if my family could come see me and I begged them no. I felt insane with all the anesthesia and steroids coursing through me. It felt like I just did eight shots of tequila and on the eight shot decided I did NOT want to be drunk.
My family wasn’t let in, but the surgeon stopped by to show off a picture he took of my tumor on his phone. This seemed strange at the time, but it was my first open adrenalectomy so I didn’t feel in the position to be asking questions.
He acted pretty impressed by the tumor. To me it looked disgusting, like a blood-covered sundae with so many scoops that you get free at the ice cream parlor if you can finish it. I suspect he might have posted it on his Facebook page.
I tried to picture myself lying on a table while this surgeon’s fingers opened me up like a can of tuna, took out my adrenal gland and kidney and stapled me shut, but I couldn’t.
Nothing seemed real, not the hospital room, not the parade of doctors and nurses and their words saying “malignant,” “rare cancer,” “you only need one kidney anyway,” “are you usually this anxious,” “very high recurrence rate,” not even the crimson scar bent across my belly like a railroad track seemed real.
Everyday after the surgery I got better and better. I felt like Benjamin Button. I was still grumpy but less Chris Brown-grumpy and more Oscar the Grouch-grumpy. I was getting my old body back, like whoopie cushions in my face and belly had been popped. The hair growing from my temples into my eyebrows like a homely cavewoman quelled. My buffalo hump shrunk to a buffalo stump.
All this improvement made it even more difficult to believe I had cancer.
It went so far that I even started to feel guilty for all the perks I was receiving after my diagnosis.
Perks like free admission for my son to summer camps replete with bounce houses and petting zoos, free dinners at places all over town, free stays at hotels, free gym memberships, cards in the mail from people I don’t even know, and people are really nice to me for no reason.
Such as my husband who rarely laughs at my jokes as he does not possess a “courtesy laugh”. But ever since we found out I had cancer he’s been laughing at nearly all my jokes.
I have a few theories of why this might be.
One, he was so starved of humor during the period leading up to surgery when I had Cushing’s and was supposedly “not funny”, that now he cherishes any attempt at humor.
Two, he feels sorry for me and laughs at me in the pitiful way one might laugh at his grandma on her death bed making a comment about the bad hospital food.
Or three, my jokes have become way more funny.
Whatever the reason, I relish the newfound ease in which I get laughs, and this isn’t the only perk that comes with cancer.
I’ve also been getting quite a few un-fished-for compliments. For instance, nearly every doctor I’ve seen has made mention of me being young. As a thirty-plus woman who can at times feel quite haggard after not sleeping for more than three hours straight the first two and a half years after her son was born, this is music to my ears.
(However, on my last visit with the radiologist he used the word “relatively” before young. It was then I realized most cancer patients are older and compared to an eighty-seven year old with prostrate cancer, I was “young”.)
Whatever, I’ll take it.
All the feelings of detachment and cancer-free guilt, however, evaporated faster than you can say LanceArmstrongmadethislookeasy when I got the news of two nodules on my lungs that were possibly growing.
I was finally beginning to see what people are talking about when they say they’re fighting cancer.
It’s that moment in the horror movie when the villain is lying on the floor dead, and the protagonist turns his back and finally starts to relax. But the audience clench their popcorn buckets and just about have a collective aneurism because they all know the bad guy is just faking being dead and is about to pop back up and kill their beloved hero!
Fighting cancer is that in slow motion, lasting for months, and then years, until you realize you might turn your back, but you never really will relax.